Uptown: 3601 Gen. Taylor
The list of restaurants owned or founded in New Orleans by Croatian families is an honor roll. There was hardly a bad one among them. Drago's, Uglesich's, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Crescent City Steak House, Bozo's, and Gentilich's were the best-known names, but there were quite a few others, no less good.
By the time I got to Sam's, it was better known as Mrs. Sam's. Sam Batinich had passed away, but his wife Veronica--who pretty much ran the place anyway--kept it going. Sometimes with the help of her dog.
Sam's was on the corner of three side streets in Broadmoor, in a narrow wedge of a block that gave the place windows on opposite walls. It's a neighborhood unknown to most New Orleanians; you practically had to live there to find your way into it. It wasn't as rough as the one where Uglesich's or the old Bozo's cooked, but bad enough that they often kept the door locked, only admitting you after they got a good look.
The menu was simple, a lot like the one at Bozo's. Spectacular fried seafood dominated the list, with oysters at the top of it. Croatians had a lock on the oyster business, and fellow countrymen knew where the good ones came from. They had boiled seafood and an assortment of platters and sandwiches.
If I were to recall the the finest fried seafood of my life, the lunches I had here would be on the list. Sam's frying was perfection: so hot you had to let it cool a minute or two before you could eat it. Crisp, greaseless. Ideally seasoned. Perfection.
Sam's Place was also a very adept purveyor of boiled shrimp, crawfish, and crabs. Some of the regulars included people who worked at Baptist and Touro Hospitals (the former was just a few blocks away), who would come en masse and eat large piles of boiled shellfish.
Despite that excellence, the most memorable part of dining here was the way Veronica took and completed your order. There was no menu. Veronica more or less told you what you were going to be eating. You could influence the order, but not dictate it.
Then, when you were finished, she would return to the table, run some arithmetical functions that only she understood through her head, and announce the total due. It was always a shade more than you expected, but not so much more that you'd be outraged. Or declare that you'd never return.
Veronica's calculus included such matters as how much she liked you. Once five coaches from a college football team came in and ate so well that they said they'd be back with the entire team the next day. Bring them in, said Veronica. The check for the team was less than it had been for the five coaches.
That story came from Klara Cvitanovich, whose family owns Drago's (she's Mrs. Drago). Sam and Veronica Batinich were such close friends with the Cvitanoviches that they were more like family. So was Sam's brother Drago Batinich. (Yes, there were two restaurateurs here named Drago.) The late Drago Batinich owned the Drago's that used to be on Harrison Avenue. Which, to confuse things even more, was where Drago Cvitanovich worked before he opened his own restaurant in Metairie.
All that is as perfect a New Orleans story as that of Sam's Place, one of the two or three best fried-seafood joints that ever were.
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